Cinematographer Harris Savides on Trust, Birth, and Invisible Light


“I light a room and let the people inhabit it, as opposed to lighting the people,” says Birth cinematographer Harris Savides, explaining his philosophy of illumination. “It’s more organic. You want to protect the people you’re working with, and there’s a constant battle between the best light for their face and the best light for the story. You don’t want to get to the point where the audience notices the light.”

Critics, for their part, have noticed Savides’s work—he won last year’s New York Film Critics Circle and Voice-poll cinematography awards. The New York–based SVA graduate describes his latest partnership, with Birth director Jonathan Glazer, as a product of trust and guesswork. “It’s kind of like the Wong Kar-wai process,” says Savides, who shot Wong’s BMW short The Follow. “Jon’s always trying to surprise himself—he told me afterwards that he’d improvised the whole thing. He showed me some films but was careful to say that we were not to take anything specific from it. I remember we watched [Robert Bresson’s donkey spiritual] Au Hasard Balthazar. . . . I guess Balthazar’s arc is the same as Nicole [Kidman]’s in Birth.”

Savides says that even though Glazer wanted the movie to be somber, he had trouble articulating the visual style. “Finally, we saw one location photo—the lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria, dark marble and warm colors. And Jon just said, ‘That’s it.’ ” Birth‘s otherworldly pall, Savides says, was achieved by lighting from overhead and through muslin, and “we also had to underexpose the film quite a bit.”

After getting his start in the European fashion world, Savides shot a few visually striking movies (James Gray’s The Yards, David Fincher’s The Game) and a string of iconic music videos: Fiona Apple’s “Criminal,” Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer,” Madonna’s “Bedtime Story” (all for Mark Romanek). But he’s best-known for his recent Gus Van Sant collaborations: Gerry, which pays tribute to the mystical powers of the long take, and Elephant, in which the signature shot—a spectral Steadicam glide from behind—deftly conflates an eerie horror movie trope and an empathetic documentary one (familiar from verité and the Dardenne brothers). Savides also shot Van Sant’s just completed Kurt Cobain movie, Last Days, and credits the director with inspiring his new “story-based” approach. “After working with Gus, I can’t go back to just loving the visuals,” he says. “On one level, I don’t want the work to be photographic. But I’d also have trouble doing a comedy, where there’s so much that needs to be delivered verbally. It’s about having an opportunity to tell the story without words.”